AKA: Chinese Connection
Director: Lo Wei
Cast: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Tien Feng, Robert Baker, Paul Wei Ping Ao, Lo Wei, Riki Hashimoto, Lee Kwan, Feng Yi, Wong Chung Shun, Alexander Grand
Running Time: 108 min.
By Henry McKeand
You can’t take your eyes off of Bruce Lee.
This is by design, of course. At the funeral that opens Fist of Fury, he’s the only one in a small sea of black fabric who wears all white. In the next scene, when he enters a Japanese dojo filled with fighters wearing white, he’s in dark threads. When the bad guys are shirts, he’s skins. When they use their hands, he whips around nunchaku. But it doesn’t take contrarian fashion choices or flashy accessories to make Bruce stand out from a crowd. No matter the scene or the outfit, he’s the one moving like a human slingshot, letting out a hyena-like battle cry as he kicks his way through a room of evildoers.
Fist of Fury was the first film Lee made after his star-making turn in The Big Boss. There, Bruce shared some of the glory with James Tien, who was originally supposed to be the lead. When it came time for Bruce’s follow-up, there was no question about who audiences wanted to see. Tien, whose own career is legendary in its own right, returned for Fist of Fury only as a side character with very little action. Everyone, big and small, had to make room for the man of the hour, who personified the term “lightning in a bottle” perhaps more than anyone in cinema history.
And make room, they did. When Bruce assumes his combat stance, the surrounding fighters take a step back and strafe him as if to give him his own personal orbit. Then, they charge at him in pairs or one by one until they’re all moaning in pain on the ground. And while winning outnumbered fights was nothing new for kung fu protagonists, there’s something different about how quickly Bruce comes out on top. More often than not, it feels like it’s over before it starts.
Watching a Bruce Lee film in the year 2023, it’s easy to take his “specialness” for granted. Even if you’ve never seen one of his movies (which would be shocking considering the nature of this website), you have an intimate knowledge of who he is and what he represents, which means that an almost impossible standard has been set. But while Enter the Dragon is his most well-known project, Fist of Fury is maybe the single best primer on just what a trailblazing force of nature he really was. It’s even baked into the script.
He plays Chen Zhen, a character who would later be taken on by both Jet Li and Donnie Yen. Chen has returned to his hometown simply to marry his childhood sweetheart (Nora Miao) when he learns that his master, Huo Yuanjia, has died. Even worse, Japanese colonizers are terrorizing his beloved Jingwu School. The other students tell him that he should turn the other cheek, but it isn’t long before he’s driven to conflict by the constant injustices he encounters. Soon, he’s running from the law and waging a one-man war against the Japanese.
The character’s fierce individualism feels especially potent in a film otherwise populated by collectivism and uniformity. None of the other Chinese characters are willing to fight back against the Japanese, and they worry that Chen Zhen’s lone wolf crusade will lead to violent backlash from the colonizers. In a sense, there are four major parties in the film’s political struggle: the Chinese civilians, the local police, the nation of Japan, and Bruce Lee. The fact that Bruce Lee is easily the most powerful of these parties, rivaled only by the nation of Japan, lends the film a mythic quality that highlights its star’s sheer intensity.
It’s a perfect role, even when Chen Zhen’s brutality contrasts with Bruce’s typical charming sage image. Some of Bruce’s appeal was always the juxtaposition between his “be water” philosophizing and the near-feral violence he tapped into on screen, but Fist of Fury finds him at his most savage. The character works not in spite of this out-of-control anger, but because of it. If the Imperial Japanese are able to drive someone as measured as Bruce Lee to teary-eyed fury, then they must be truly awful.
The script doesn’t shy away from this awfulness, either. In fact, the small humiliations and callous dehumanization of imperialism are captured with a surprising honesty. At first, Chen Zhen’s inability to suppress his rage comes off like a flaw in his discipline that he will have to overcome. As things progress, however, it becomes clear that no amount of submissiveness will convince the colonial machine to concede even an ounce of power. By the final act, the film has evolved into a commentary on political resistance and the tragedy inherent in even the most righteous violence. And while much of Bruce’s international success came from appealing to American sensibilities, Fist of Fury is unmistakably Chinese in the way it uses wounds from the nation’s past to heighten its drama.
Above all, the constant political strife serves as a showcase for Bruce’s endless physical prowess. From his opening Dojo smackdown to his mastery of nunchaku to his climactic fight with his real-life student Robert Baker (AKA Evil Gene Wilder), he’s in peak condition. His signature poses have been copied to death, but the way he flexes and lets his entire body tremble with energy after finishing a combination is still awe-inspiring half a century later. Lo Wei was far from an auteur, be he at least had the sense to get out of the way and let the fighting do the talking.
It may not be as bloody or exploitative as The Big Boss, but it feels even more dangerous. Bruce would soon drop Lo Wei and inject some silly fun into his projects, but Fist of Fury remains a lean slab of pure, uncompromising kung fu cinema. Now that Arrow has released a pristine 4K transfer, there’s never been a better time to revisit Bruce’s most bombastic performance. As always, you won’t be able to take your eyes off of him.
Henry McKeand’s Rating: 8.5/10